and that has made all the difference

Natsumi really, really admired Himiko. She liked all the regulars, of course -- even Akabane-sensei, because he was always polite and paid for his drinks and she was sure that he couldn't be that bad a person, even if he'd tried to kill Ginji-kun and Ban-chan just a bit -- but Himiko had a special sort of glamour for her.

Himiko was someone who didn't take any nonsense. She simply cut her way through any insults and ignored pettiness. She was all adult, even if Ban-chan treated her like a little girl. Ban-chan could be such an idiot sometimes.

Himiko was so stylish.

"Those gloves are so pretty," Natsumi said. "Where did you find them?"

Himiko smiled. "I saw them on an avatar of myself in a supernatural card game and thought that they looked like a good style for me."

"Ooh," Natsumi said, impressed.

Himiko always knew what to do.

"I don't know what to do," Natsumi sniffled into her coffee. "I try to do what mother and father want, and I am polite and well-mannered, really I am, but it's never enough. And they said that I could get a job at this café because it would be good work experience, but now they're starting to say that it's having a bad effect on my behaviour and --"

"Hm," Himiko said, and sipped her coffee. She thought for a moment, then flipped her phone open, holding up one hand when Natsumi tried to speak. "Excuse me -- ah, Kakei-san? Yes, if I could speak to Fuuchoin-san, please -- yes, thank you. Kazuki, hello, I hope I'm not bothering you in the middle of anything important -- oh, good. I have a favour to ask, if you would be so kind." A pause. "Yes, of course, I'll be glad to help with that. No, this isn't connected with the usual business. It's about Natsumi. She needs some coaching. Yes, certainly, later this evening will be fine. Thank you."

She clicked the phone shut. "If anyone round here knows about manners, Kazuki does. We'll have him go through the things your parents are complaining about and make sure they haven't got any grounds to complain." She smiled thinly. "Always call in the expert, Natsumi."

"Oh, yes," Natsumi said fervently. "You're so clever, Himiko-san."

Himiko flushed, just a little.

Himiko was in charge. She was in control. She didn't get pushed round by anyone. She even told people like Akabane-sensei what to do. And they did it.

"We have to get going, Doctor Jackal," Himiko said briskly. "There's that pickup to make for ten o'clock."

"Certainly, Lady Poison," Akabane-sensei said, swaying to his feet in a long dark ripple of coat. He adjusted his hat and floated towards the door, barely seeming to move, just hanging in the air in an ominous sort of shadow of doom way.

He did nod to Natsumi, though. He was always so polite.

Himiko was always so kind.

"He wasn't worth it," Himiko sighed, passing Natsumi another tissue. "He really wasn't."

"B-b-but he said he liked me," Natsumi sniffled into the sodden lump of tissue she was already holding to her eyes. "He said he thought I was sweet and cute and funny and then -- then --"


"Then Ban-chan and Ginji-kun took him outside to have a little chat with him and he never came back!"

"So they got there first," Himiko muttered.

"Mm?" Natsumi queried.

"Don't worry," Himiko said gently. "If he ran away just because those two were having a nice little talk with him, then clearly he wasn't the right person for you. I'm sure that you'll find someone better."

"Do you really think so?"

"I really do."

And Himiko was always such a nice person.

"Where are you going?" Himiko asked.

Natsumi smoothed her new dress and patted at her hair. "I'm going to a party!" she said. "We're going to dance and my friends have all got the new Hello Kitty phone cases and . . ." She blushed. "I'm sorry. It must all sound so stupid to you, when you're off on important jobs and doing dangerous things."

Himiko, astonishingly, stepped forward and slid her arms round Natsumi's shoulders, hugging her before letting go. Her silk gloves were cool on Natsumi's arms, and she smelled of spices. "Don't think that," she said. "We do different things. That's all. In another time and place, you might have been the one on the motorcycle and I might have been the one with the coffee."

Natsumi blushed. That was so very clever of Himiko to see it that way.

"What are you doing afterwards?" Himiko asked.

"Oh, I've got to have an early night," Natsumi said. "We've got a test at school tomorrow! But I'll be working in the Honky-Tonk as usual after school, so I'll see you then." She waved a cheerful hand. "Good luck with your mission tonight!"

Himiko smiled in a way that -- if she hadn't known better -- would have made Natsumi think she was somehow sad or disappointed. "Good luck with your party," she said.

Himiko was just so cool.

Natsumi would like to be as cool as that some day.